Southern Illinois University-Carbondale
A fair amount of scholarly work in philosophy in general, and in American philosophy in particular, is currently being devoted to a recovery of previously invisible genealogical strands in the historical fabric of these fields. And, given both the explicit and implicit racism and sexism in the (American) philosophic tradition, it is not unsurprising that many of these not-yet-acknowledged figures are women and/or racial minorities. Thus, we see a work such as Charlene Haddock Seigfried's Pragmatism and Feminism: Reweaving the Social Fabric that seeks, at least in part, to reclaim a heritage of significant women in the Pragmatist tradition. In a related vein, thinkers such as Leonard Harris and Lucius Outlaw are concerned with the implications, both immediately for American philosophy, and for philosophizing in any capacity, of the writings of African-American thinkers like Alain Locke and Ralph Ellison, respectively. In these cases, the drive to broaden the context of inquiry and multiply the community of inquirers is both a representation and an extension of the American philosophical tradition.
I mention these current developments in order to situate my own investigations of Albert Murray, whose writings on aesthetics in general, and the blues idiom in particular, seem to be an artful extension of the Pragmatist tradition.i My initial purpose in this paper is to expose the tremendous similarity in the positions of Dewey and Murray regarding the definition and function of art in human community. I hope to reveal that both thinkers find art to be the medium through which the possibilities of life are both discovered and realized--which is another way of saying that art is fundamentally a (perhaps the) means of education (hence, growth) for humankind. In addition, I hope to show that Murray's articulation of the blues idiom as the most efficient, and most American, vernacular through which universal ideals are established and approximated, represents a profitable, though unintentional, specific application of Deweyan aesthetics.
A third theme permeating this work deals with the way in which the blues idiom, which has traditionally been associated with African-American experiences, can serve as a site for cultural transaction. As such, Murray, as a critic of the blues idiom, is functionally equivalent to, in Dewey's words, a "messenger, a liason officer, making reciprocally intelligible voices speaking provincial tongues…thereby enlarging as well as rectifying the meanings with which they are charged" (1958, 410). Attention toward Murray's work is thus a way of cultivating an "epistemology of the ear," which is an important stage in the process of coming to understand others.ii (On a broader scale, the mutual listening that could take place between "mainstream" American philosophers and "marginalized" American philosophers would seem to be a stage in the growth of each.)
In a collection of essays entitled The Omni-Americans, Albert Murray writes:
"The most elementary and hence the least dispensable objective of all serious artistic expression, whether aboriginal or sophisticated, is to make human existence meaningful" (54). His emphasis of "meaningful" is clearly meant to stress the suffix--it is not that life has no meaning independent of that which is expressed in art, but rather, that it is only through art that life becomes full of meaning. His later comment on the artist helps clarify this point:
Extemporizing in response to the exigencies of the situation in which he finds himself, he is confronting, acknowledging, and contending with the infernal absurdities and ever-impending frustrations inherent in the nature of all existence by playing with the possibilities that are also there. (1970, 58)
Which is an artful rendering of the old saw: when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Which is another way of saying that the artist "does not shun moments of resistance and tension" but "rather cultivates them, not for their own sake but because of their potentialities, bringing to living consciousness an experience that is unified and total" (1958, 15). The rhythm of life is one of fits and starts, of frustration and satisfaction, of initiation and consummation. Of course, such a rhythm is conducive to growth, for each time we intelligently realign ourselves with the environment new relations of self-world emerge. Dewey makes it clear that this is ultimately the model of education--uncovering broader contexts of meaning.
It is important to note here that the model of experience (hence, art and education) that Dewey is suggesting is one of continuity in the midst of precariousness. The self, though consistently readjusting, is never wholly novel. On the other hand, the self, though always present to some degree, is not static. In other words, self-development is neither linear nor circular. Rather, self- development proceeds by way of a certain kind of spiral, wherein each successive experience affects relative transformation of a dynamic self.iii
Thus, experience presents the possibilities for the enrichment of further experience, for the cultivation of meaning, even (or especially) in the face of adversity. In light of such claims, Murray writes that "even in the best of times the blues are only at bay and are thus always somewhere in the not-too-distant background" ready to surface again (1976, 5). And, regardless of when and how the blues emerge, "the main thing about them is the botheration they bring, and your most immediate concern is how to dislodge them before the botheration degenerates into utter hopelessness" (5). Hence, "the most fundamental of all existential imperatives" is "reaffirmation and continuity in the face of adversity" (6). Murray concludes this line of argument by discussing the character of Hamlet:
No wonder Hamlet came to debate with himself whether to be or not to be. Nor was it, or is it, a question of judging whether or not life is or is not worth living. Not in the academic sense of Albert Camus's concern with the intrinsic absurdity of existence per se. Hamlet's was whether things are worth all the trouble and struggle. (6)
Dewey presented this claim in much the same way in Human Nature and Conduct some fifty years earlier, when he wrote that the question "Why live?" is ultimately the question "How should I live?" In Dewey's words: "No one can escape [the implications of this latter question] if he wants to. He cannot escape the problem of how to engage in life, since in any case he must engage in it in some way or another--or else quit and get out" (75).
Dewey's own answer to the question of how to live may be encapsulated by the phrase "live intelligently," which might be elaborated into: continuously readapt in light of the tentative, but warranted, results of experimental experience (or experiential experiment). Thus, the artist is a model of good living, insofar as the artist is "compelled to be an experimenter because he has to express an intensely individualized experience through means and materials that belong to the common and public world" (1958, 144). Moreover, "only because the artist operates experimentally does he open new fields of experience and disclose new aspects and qualities in familiar scenes and objects" (144). The artist is always "on the growing edge of things," insofar as the "established" does not satisfy his or her "adventurous" nature (144).iv All of which basically makes the point that the artist as such operates with an improvisational style.
A word of caution is nevertheless in order. Improvisation is not equivalent to the "esthetic individualism" which Dewey rejects in Art as Experience (9). That is, improvisation is not a kind of isolated and exaggerated "separateness" or eccentric "self-expression" (9). Rather, improvisation is the refinement or elaboration of already existing conventions. This extension follows a characteristic pattern, according to Dewey, in which experimentation is first exaggerated, then adopted or "absorbed" by the tradition, then exploited by cheap imitators (1958, 142). This last stage "dogs creative work after the latter has received general recognition" and the "academic and eclectic result" (142). Improvisation, in terms of growth, should open up and play up the possibilities presented in experience. Hence, the background of tradition offers a certain amount of material to be imaginatively reworked. Yet, the point Dewey is making is that the reworking is not an end in itself, but rather, a means toward the expression of new avenues of meaning (which, again, are presented through tradition). Murray agrees, writing that improvisation or experimentation is "that informal trial and error process by means of which tradition adapts itself to change, or renews itself through change. It is, that is to say, the means by which the true and tested in the traditional regenerates itself in the vernacular" (1973, 72). In Stomping the Blues, Murray counters what is an over-academicized view of blues and jazz which delights in the avant-garde. According to such a view, the penultimate jazz artist is one who follows a completely radical impulse so as to express complete innovation and novelty. Murray's counter-claim is that the significance of "blues musicianship" is "far more a matter of imitation and variation and counterstatement than of originality" and that "it is not so much what the blues musicians bring out of themselves on the spur of the moment as what they do with existing conventions" that determines mastery of the idiom (126). Which, of course, is all about saying that what is artistic is the imaginative reconstruction of the present situation (which is necessarily built from the past in anticipation of the future).v
Interestingly enough, the formal elements of blues music serve to characterize this improvisational and revisionary idiom. Form is, for Dewey, "the operation of forces that carry the experience of an event, object, scene, and situation to its integral fulfillment" (1958, 137). Moreover, the particular interrelations of various formal elements serve to unify the particular work of art. Or, as Dewey put it, "mutual adaptation of parts to one another in constituting a whole is the relation which, formally speaking, characterizes a work of art" (135). The particular devices that characterize the blues idiom involve, among others, "the vamp or improvised introduction or lead-in, the riff or repetition phrase, and the break or temporary interruption of the established cadence and which usually requires a fill" (1996, 94). These devices, as characteristically employed, saturate blues music with the improvisational quality already described. Perhaps the most salient of these elements is the break, which, as Murray claims, is the "musical equivalent of the storybook hero's moment of truth" (1996, 95). We can imagine the scenario: the piano player has vamped the way into the particular number, and the rest of the band is now involved in the call and response format, with the trombones yielding now to the exuberance of the trumpets. And then it happens--the trumpets wane, and all that remains is the underlying rhythm. A soloist stands, faced with "jeopardy as challenge and opportunity," and summons the "elegant insouciance" required to make an adequate fill (1996, 95).vi
The centrality of such improvisation, extension, elaboration, refinement, in the works of both Dewey and Murray, sets the stage for heroic (or at least meliorative) endeavor. It is precisely this attitude that has consistently, yet mistakenly, associated Deweyan pragmatism with wholesale optimism--or as usually stated "a lack of a sense of the tragic." Dewey's response is that his position is not that of an optimist (who believes everything is already all right), but rather, of a meliorist. He writes,
Meliorism is the belief that the specific conditions which exist at one moment, be they comparatively bad or comparatively good, in any event may be bettered. It encourages intelligence to study the positive means of good and the obstructions to their realization, and to put forth endeavor for the improvement of conditions. (1920, 178)
It is not the case, then, that Dewey is not aware of the evils facing humankind, but rather, that his improvisational spirit seeks to make things better by following up on the potentialities inherent in even the worst of experiences. (In fact, it may be the case that such potentialities are only made more evident by harshness of conditions--as, perhaps, in Holocaust literature or slave narratives.) At the same time, Dewey is aware that even the best laid plans often go awry, and that would-be meliorative actions often contribute to making things worse than they already are. However, his point is that human life should be a continuous attempt to overcome obstacles given by nature or by human myopia.
Murray speaks to this point perhaps more extensively than Dewey, by noting that the blues idiom in particular is especially geared towards confronting the antagonism of nature on a heroic scale. The blues ballad, e.g., almost always tells a tale of frustration, not in order to promote withdrawal or lamentation, but rather, to make clear the "essentially tenuous nature of all human existence" (1970, 57). Moreover, in contrast to the tale of woe represented in the lyrics, the music "swings," and is much more appropriate for the dance hall than the funeral parlor or self-indulged pity-party. In Murray's words, blues music is "good-time music." It conveys simultaneously that life is largely problematic at the same time that it is largely open to revision.
As such, the blues idiom is indicative of a particular way of life. As Murray notes:
Art is by definition a process of stylization; and what it stylizes is experience. What it objectifies, embodies, abstracts, expresses, and symbolizes is a sense of life. Accordingly, what is represented in the music, dance, painting, sculpture, literature, and architecture of a given group of people in a particular time, place, and circumstance is a conception of the essential nature and purpose of human existence itself. (1970, 54-5)
It is in this sense that Murray adopts Kenneth Burke's notion of art as "equipment for living."
Burke basically equivocated style with strategy--with a way of "sizing up the world," "a mode and medium of survival" (1970, 55). The blues idiom represents a distinctively American style of life, involving a characteristic mix of "comedy," "irreverent wisdom," and improvisation which Constance Rourke claimed constituted "emblems for a pioneer people who required resilience as a prime trait" (1970, 16). Or, in Ralph Ellison's words:
The blues is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one's aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism. (1953, 90)
And in another passage:
[O]ne final word about the blues: Their attraction lies in this, that they at once express both the agony of life and the possibility of conquering it through sheer toughness of spirit. (1953, 104)
In a rather interesting passage, Murray uses the all-American sport of baseball as an example of how it, like the blues, is driven by a kind of "pragmatist attitude toward the nature of things" (1976, 250n.). I include it here, despite its length.
Not only are there bad times as well as good times, but even during the best of seasons when your team wins more games than its opponents, most of its efforts end in failure. The very best batters are not only hard put to hit safely on an average of three out of ten times but miss the ball more often than they hit it whenever they swing the bat. Most base runners do not score. The very best pitchers not only give up bases on balls and have their best pitches end up as hits and even as home runs, but also get knocked out of the box from time to time. And yet the competing players and partisan spectators alike accept such adversity as a part of the game, which otherwise would not last the customary nine innings. In fact, the whole point of sportsmanship is to condition people to win without arrogance and to fail with grace. As deeply disappointed as a team and its rooters are when its most dependable hitter strikes out in the ninth inning with tying and winning runs on third and second base, everybody would be scandalized if he then became so embarrassed that he ran off and spent the rest of the day crying and cursing himself. What is expected is that he realize that for all his great skill, past record, and heroic effort, you cannot win them all. (1996, 250n.)vii
This is the essence of the blues idiom. It is at once both extremely regional and particular in terms of stylization, yet ultimately universal in its implications for human existence. As Murray puts it, "Beneath the idiomatic surface of your old down-home stomping ground, with all of the ever-so-evocative local color you work so hard to get just right, is the common ground of mankind in general" (1996, 12). The moral and educational import of this notion is related by Murray's claim that the storyteller/artist says or implies essentially this message:
Once upon a time in a place far away or nearby or right on this very spot or wherever, where people did things this way or that or however, there was whoever who was in whichever situation (to wit, et cetera) and who did whatsoever. Once upon a time. But perhaps also time after time after time and so on up to this time and this very day. So take note. (1996, 12-3)
What we are to "take note" of is the idiomatic stylization of the most fundamental themes--which is another way of saying the traditional represented (or, rather, reconstructed) in the vernacular. Which is also to say that what we may learn from artistic expression is the style or strategy employed by a certain artist, as a transactive member of a certain group. In simpler terms, we may learn how some folks actively confront the not always pleasant but always present facts of life.viii
All of this suggests, for Murray, that the role of the critic is not that of merely pontificating on the institutional or even classic status of a work of art. Rather,
the very first function of criticism is to mediate between the work of art and the uninitiated reader, viewer, or listener. As mediator, the critic decodes and explains the elements of the game of stylization and makes the aesthetic statement more accessible. (1996, 14)
Of course, in order to achieve this, the critic must have an understanding "of what is being stylized plus an accurate insight into how it is being stylized," which is another way of saying that the critic must have a grasp of the "comprehensive synthesis of all the aspects of [the work's] idiom" (1976, 196). It is only after rendering such an account that the critic may offer a "professional observer's opinion as to how effectively it has been stylized and perhaps to what personal and social end" (1996, 14).
Dewey explains the office and function of criticism in much the same way in Art as Experience, noting that the critic should "discover some unifying strand or pattern running through all the details" of a work (314). After discovering such a pattern, "the critic shall seize upon" it, and "bring it forth with such clearness that the reader has a new clue and guide in his own experience" (314). In other words, the critic should attempt to relate something of the qualitative unity of a work, which is to be found in the form--i.e., the consummation of the interplay of a variety of elements. What is extremely important is that the critic relay those elements or qualities which fully permeate the work, so as not to offer a limited or even biased description and/or judgment.
This is especially important for Dewey, since the history of aesthetic criticism is dominated by two major fallacies. The first is the "reductive fallacy," which misrepresents the work of art through the "isolation" and exaltation of a particular element of the work above all others. For example, a work is considered merely representational, or merely technical, or merely tonal (1958, 314). Dewey cites the "so-called sociological criticism" as a perfect instance of such reductive criticism, wherein the work is judged by the historical and cultural import alone (316). It is not that such themes have no place in criticism, claims Dewey, but that they are (at best) but a part of the whole: "Knowledge of social conditions of production is, when it is really knowledge, of genuine value. But it is no substitute for understanding of the object in its own qualities and relations" (316).
The second major aesthetic fallacy is that of "confusion of categories," which is quickly summed up by the following: "Critics as well as theorists are given to the attempt to translate the distinctively esthetic over into terms of some other kind of experience" (317). This is what Arthur Danto termed the "disenfranchisement of art," where art becomes valuable only insofar as it is merely representative or expressive of a particular theoretical position. So, e.g., to read Dostoyevsky's Notes from the Underground as merely a treatise on Existentialism, or Richard Wright's Native Son as merely a protest novel, is to confuse philosophical-political categories with the category of the aesthetic. And, as Dewey notes, all of this confusion stems from the same source: "a neglect of the intrinsic significance of the medium" (319).
An understanding of Dewey's analysis here offers a profitable perspective from which to consider Murray's extreme distaste for what he calls "social science fiction." The application of the findings of social science to the blues in particular is wrought with the reductionism and confusion of categories that Dewey elaborated. Nowhere is Murray more direct about this than in The Omni-Americans, the title of which points already to a rejection of cultural oversimplifications. To take a characteristic instance, the social scientist is bogged down by theories of "social pathology and the need for revolutionary political reform or community rehabilitation" to the point that he or she cannot take seriously the aesthetic dimensions of life (1970, 56). Hence,
What the blues represent in his view of things is a crude, simple-minded expression of frustration and despair. Thus, so far as he is concerned, swinging the blues achieves only an essentially pathetic therapeutic compensation for the bleak social and economic circumstances of black people in the United States. (57)
In another place, Murray claims this is a focus on the "blues as such," rather than on blues music or the blues idiom (1976, 45). Given this outlook, the social scientist can only interpret Saturday night dance-hall fun as a strategy of escape from the reality of the social world, instead of a stylistic, "down-home" "dynamic of confrontation" (57). Murray's rejection of this line of oversimplification involves a simultaneous rejection of what he calls the "objective of white norm/black deviation survey data," or in another place, "white folklore/black fakelore" (1970, 59). The purpose of this approach is to reinforce the notion that "economic exclusion and political powerlessness" necessarily entail "cultural deprivation" (59). Yet, as Murray argues, this is only part of the story.
Consider for example, that the institution of American slavery was not only characterized by suffering and limitation, but also by heroic response. (The Underground Railroad may have literally meant escape for slaves, but such escape demanded heroic action to the extreme.) Murray terms this situation "antagonistic cooperation" (1973, 49). Recalling the notion that resistance is a necessary component of art, he writes that an artist should
regard anti-black racism, for instance, as an American-born dragon which should be destroyed, but he also regards it as something which, no matter how devastatingly sinister, can and will be destroyed because its very existence generates both the necessity and the possibility of heroic deliverance (49)
And, again, such a heroic style of life is absorbed into the very fabric of the American tapestry. It is no coincidence, then, that Constance Rourke's characteristic American is, at least partly, a "Negro." Nor is it surprising that Abraham Lincoln said of Frederick Douglass that "considering the condition from which he had risen and obstacles he had overcome, and the position to which he had attained that he [Lincoln] regarded him [Douglass] as one of the most meritorious men, if not the most meritorious man in the United States" (1970, 20). All of this to say that in order to fully understand the artistic works of the blues idiom, we must become more acquainted with the actual conditions of its creation. We must be able to interpret the idiom on its own terms, thereby avoiding overly simplistic images that Stanley Crouch calls "intellectual mint juleps that cool out summers on the culture plantations" (1990, 30).
Moreover, we must avoid confusing political or philosophical categories with the primarily aesthetic. While philosophical themes may be explored in a work of art in the blues idiom, the primary emphasis is not philosophical but artistic. Thus, the "shop-talk" of blues musicians is likely to focus on
the characteristics and peculiarities of musical instruments and accessories, fundamentals of and innovations in technique, the merits and shortcomings of various systems of execution and exercise manuals, keynote preferences, the eccentricities of arrangers and the idiosyncrasies of other musicians, especially those they admire. (1976, 227)
Of course, Murray agrees with Dewey that all of this is not meant to suggest that the artist can't have a philosophy, and that such a philosophy can't influence the artist's work. Rather, the point is that the critic must search for the qualitative unity of the work. And, this is (at least in good works) aesthetic, rather than academic.
As should be already obvious, the accuracy of the aesthetic critic is not important merely for the sake of rendering an accurate account of the work of art. Rather, since the work of art is an embodiment of a particular style--an idiomatic reconstruction of already existing conventions--it is also a statement of a particular way of life. Which is to say that art is ultimately an imaginative report of how certain folks get along in the precariousness of the human predicament. Hence, a misunderstanding of art is a misunderstanding of culture. Conversely, an understanding of art is, at least, a stage in coming to understand a culture, sub-culture, group, or artist.
According to Murray, "Americans from Africa…are not derived from a life style that has been…concerned with preserving and transmitting the past per se as Europeans have been" (1970, 184). This does not mean that the past is "entirely forgettable," but rather, that African conceptions of time, change, history, and documentation were different than those of Europe (184). The largely oral character of historical recording in Africa gave rise to an attitude of "flexibility;" one of "improvisation rather than piety" (184). This attitude was absolutely indispensable for the slave, the victim of Jim Crow laws, and is now for targets of institutional racism. The blues idiom encapsulates this character of flexibility or improvisation, celebrating the "riff-style life style" that has served as "equipment for living" for African-Americans. As such, the blues tell a story of African-American experiences, which, as Murray reminds us, may just tell us something about the nature of all human existence.
In Murray's work, then, we find clues toward the kind of "epistemology of the ear," that Thomas Alexander argues allows us to "generate mutual understanding" across various social barriers (Hickman, 18). As a particular instance of this, Murray rejects the simplistic claim that "white" persons can't play jazz or blues, suggesting rather that a white person can play the blues
if he is a good enough musician and respects the medium as he would any other art form. If he develops the same familiarity with its idiomatic nuances, the same love of it, and humility before it as the good Negro musician does. (1970, 132)
In other words, as long as the white artist is dedicated to the idiom, and not "really ambivalent about it" (132). His point is clear enough: to further mutual understanding, one must not settle for half-truths and inadequate representations and interpretations of the other. And, the surest way to avoid that is to immerse oneself (with the help of some good critics, of course) in the idiomatic expression--the vernacular--in short, in the art of living of the other.
i. It should be noted that while Murray's work is amazingly similar to that of Dewey, he makes no direct reference to Dewey in any of the works cited in this paper. However, I am skeptical of Raymond Boisvert's claim in John Dewey: Rethinking Our Time, that Murray's position is "seemingly composed without any knowledge of Deweyan aesthetics" (137). While this may seem to be the case, Murray's frequent references to the work of Kenneth Burke (who does explicitly deal with Dewey) would offer some evidence to at least a basic familiarity with Deweyan aesthetics.
ii. Thomas Alexander describes this "epistemology of the ear" as being representative of the "mutual listening" and "mutual imagination" necessary for a civilized democratic society. See "The Art of Life: Dewey's Aesthetics, in Reading Dewey, ed. Larry Hickman (Bloomington: Indiana U. Press, 1998).
iii. Compare this to Murray's description of education as "continuity through change" and "the continuous restructuring of experience" (1970, 213-4).
iv. This is perhaps why one of Murray's favorite claims is that the music of Armstrong and Ellington sounds "as if it knows the truth about all the other music in the world and is looking for something better." See, e.g., The Blue Devils of Nada, p. 96.
v. Incidentally, this is the context in which Murray's work is introduced in Boisvert's book. Boisvert claims that the "playful improvising" of e.g., Ellington, is consistent with Deweyan aesthetics. This would also seem to differ from the popular art that Alexander characterizes as "the same disguised as different" (Boisvert, 136).
vi. It is not only the solo musician who is called upon for heroic effort here, notes Murrray. Realizing that blues is primarily dance music, the break is also that point at which dancers are on their own, so to speak, and must improvise.
vii. With this in mind, it is perhaps more clear why Dewey chose to use the example of how the "tense grace of the ball player infects the onlooking crowd" as an instance of the aesthetic in the raw (1958, 5).
viii. In The Hero and the Blues, Murray describes the response of a reader to a work of literature as that of a student to instructor or apprentice to journeyman. His point is that the "recall, recognition, repetition, imitation, reconstruction, and recreation" involved in the reader's response are ultimately the same phases underlying the educational process (23).
Boisvert, Raymond D. John Dewey: Rethinking Our Time (New York: SUNY Press, 1998).
Crouch, Stanley. Notes of a Hanging Judge (New York: Oxford U. Press, 1990).
Dewey, John. Reconstruction in Philosophy (Boston: Beacon Press, 1920).
-----. Human Nature and Conduct (New York: Random House, 1922).
-----. Art as Experience (New York: Capricorn, 1934).
-----. Experience and Nature (New York: Dover, 1958).
Ellison, Ralph. Shadow and Act (New York: Signet, 1953).
Hickman, Larry. Reading Dewey: Interpretations for a Postmodern Generation (Bloomington: Indiana U. Press, 1998).
Murray, Albert. The Omni-Americans (New York: Da Capo Press, 1970).
-----. The Hero and the Blues (New York: Vintage, 1973).
-----. Stomping the Blues (New York: Da Capo Press, 1976).
-----. The Blue Devils of Nada: A Contemporary American Approach to Aesthetic Statement (New York: Vintage, 1996).